Facebook Twitter

Perspective: Whether you call it ‘grooming’ or not, what’s happening to our children is not acceptable

Boundaries around children and sex are more fragile than we might think, and parents are right to guard them

SHARE Perspective: Whether you call it ‘grooming’ or not, what’s happening to our children is not acceptable

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash / Michelle Budge, Deseret News

It’s unfortunate that the word “groomer” has become a flashpoint of partisan debate. Incendiary figures on the right have sometimes used the term as a political weapon, and those on the left retaliate by dismissing legitimate concerns about the sexualization of children as moral panic.

This dynamic played out in a recent essay that characterized parents’ concerns as a “sex panic” rooted in bigotry, conspiracy theories and fascism. While it’s worth drawing attention to the many thoughtless or badly motivated uses of the term “grooming,” it’s unfair to position concerns about child sexualization in opposition to tolerance, intelligence and good faith. 

Parental concerns, after all, are shared across the ideological spectrum.

While there are exceptions, most concerns about grooming aren’t insinuations that someone intends to sexually abuse a child. The term “grooming” instead seeks to call attention to the way recent cultural shifts around gender and sexuality are piercing the boundaries between what’s deemed appropriate for children versus adults.

Activities that were once indisputably considered “adult” only — like pole dancing, kink parades or drag performances — are suddenly being reframed as tools to educate children and encourage tolerance. This stokes fears that the presence of children is being used to win goodwill for certain adult activities.

It used to be a matter of public agreement that it was inappropriate to expose children to sexually charged information, images, performances or other content which lowers their inhibitions and reduces their unease toward adult sexual activities. However sincere the stated goals, if “progress” means increasing a child’s familiarity with adult sexual materials or practices, it’s time to question whether either the ends or the means are justified. 

Boundaries around children and sex are more fragile than some might think. As the sexual revolution hit its stride in the 1970s, mainstream intellectuals attempted to overturn what they considered repressive, Victorian attitudes about child innocence.

Movements to normalize pedophilia began in the U.S. and the U.K., and in France, a 1977 petition signed by many of France’s leading luminaries called for the French parliament to decriminalize sex between adults and children.

At the time, proponents argued that the signees had no particular interest in sex with children (disputed by later evidence) and that it was, instead, a matter of principle in the fight against a shaming, hypocritical moral regime that unduly restricts one’s rights. Their efforts were couched in rights-based language, claiming that since sex is not shameful and children are intelligent, adults have no right to deprive children of sexual experiences.

French philosopher Michel Foucault in 1978 explained that he considered denying children sexual opportunities a form of abuse, saying that “to assume a child … was incapable of giving his consent” is “intolerable, quite unacceptable.” 

More recently, Harper Keenan and an individual named “Lil Miss Hot Mess” published an academic article advocating for expansion of “drag queen story hours,” where “reading each other to filth” is a form of literacy valuable to early childhood education. 

As parents watch some highly progressive movements seek to overturn sexual taboos and parental judgements around the previously impermissible, they are naturally anxious. We have watched as longstanding sexual norms have fallen before the pressure of sexual liberation. How can we be certain standards around children and sex will remain in place?

This is not an indictment of any particular person or group’s intentions toward children. We believe that most people want to protect childhood innocence. We are instead asking society to look thoughtfully at the trajectory of the logic underlying such movements. As author Louise Perry writes in a recent book, “the principles of sexual liberalism do, I’m sorry to say, trundle inexorably towards this endpoint.”

Since many sexual practices once considered distasteful are now finding mainstream acceptance, we cannot suppose that mere feelings will be enough to protect children from the march of sexual liberation. This is why parents have concerns. They come from a desire to help children experience a safe environment in which to grow and learn prior to entering adulthood.

Our hope is that instead of following the predictable and partisan playbook of the culture war, we can avoid deploying terms like “groomer” as a political weapon. But we also hope that people’s legitimate concerns for childhood safety are also not dismissed as fascist. Then the focus can go back to how best to help children become well-adjusted contributing adults.

Meagan Kohler is a mom who writes for Public Square Magazine. Dan Ellsworth is a consultant and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.